Bhutan is estimated to have around 5,000 to 6,000 graduates, who over the years have graduated from the Sikkim Manipal University’s various affiliated study centers outside Sikkim. The majority of them come from the B.B Pradhan Management College (BMC) in Kalimpong which has been in operation since 2003.
Over the years these many graduates have joined government jobs both through the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) and directly through government agencies. They have also taken up government corporate jobs and also contested elections on the strength of their graduation certificate.
SMU degree under question
However, this very Graduation Certificate has come into question in Bhutan as Sikkim Manipal University (SMU) affiliated study centers as of 2016 have started mentioning ‘Directorate of Distance Education,’ on their graduation certificates.
This is an issue as the RCSC and other government agencies, as a rule, do not accept ‘Distance Education’ graduation certificates for employment. Moreover, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) also does not accept such degrees to contest in elections.
This could also affect all past graduates as recently affected Bhutanese students have found that the Sikkim Manipal University (SMU) Degrees from these affiliated centers in the past too were ‘Distance Education’ degrees as per India’s University Grants Commission (UGC). The only difference being that in the past the University took care to not mention it on the Graduation Certificates of students to give an appearance of it being a full fledged formal degree.
The students themselves who attended these colleges classes regularly, did exams and even wore uniforms were also under the impression that they were getting formal graduate degrees.
However, a group of eight recent Bhutanese graduates who studied in the SMU affiliated study center called ‘Six Sigma Educom College’ in Shillong found to their shock this change in their graduation certificates of 2016.
One of them Kunzang Thinley from Punakha who wanted to contest for the 2018 National Council elections found that the ECB would not accept his graduation degree.
So Kunzang and seven of his colleagues from the same college have put up petitions and complaints on the issue to the Education Minister and the Cabinet Secretariat.
In their letter to the Education Ministry the eight students said that they have been deceived by the University. They said that the University had enrolled them as regular degree students in 2013 and over the course of six semesters in three years they paid Nu 111,000 in fees with their own separate house rent expenses of Nu 162,000 each not including fooding, lodging etc.
The letter says, “As we passed out in 2016, it turned out to be a nightmare for all of us that they issued a distance education certificate which is a total deception of what we were promised and registered for.” They said that SMU turned a deaf year to their request for a formal degree.
SMU’s murky legal past
Unknown to many Bhutanese students, both past and present, the UGC of India on 27th June 2013 had issued a notification saying that a University established or incorporated under a State Act can operate only within that state and cannot operate beyond that jurisdiction. This meant that the University could operate only in Sikkim.
Prior to this in 2011 Denmark and Australia started rejecting SMU graduates on the basis of a letter from India’s Ministry of Human Resources and Development that said these SMU study centers were not authorized and so their programs and degrees offered on a distant mode could not be recognized under Indian law nor be equated to an Indian degree.
When some ex-students in India took the matter to court, the Sikkim High Court in June 26, 2015 upheld that SMU affiliated study centers outside Sikkim cannot offer such courses anymore. However, to protect the interest of SMU students the court ruled that all students who had taken distance education admissions till the day of the court judgment of 26th June 2015 would have their distance education degree’s protected.
In reaction to the High Court order of 2015 the SMU did not want to take any risks and so it started mentioning ‘Directorate of Distance Education’ on its graduation certificates from then on.
This was confirmed to The Bhutanese by the Six Sigma Educom College which in a statement said that prior to the court case the SMU did not mention Distance Education on their degrees but did so after the court case.
Sigma College responds
The Six Sigma Educom College claimed that distance education was mentioned in the enrollment forms for students and students were aware but issues cropped up only after it was mentioned on the graduation certificates.
However, the College out of the six mark sheets from 2013 to 2016 did not mention ‘Directorate of Distance Learning’ in the five semesters results but mentioned it only from July 2016 in the sixth semester result card. This indicates a clear attempt to hide ‘Distance Learning’ both from its mark sheets and its certificate up until 2016.
The college said it has written to the SMU to upgrade these degrees but it said that it may be difficult for the SMU to do it only for around eight students.
The college said that a few years ago it came to Bhutan to advertise its college but no media outlet would publish its advertisement stating a government notification on distance learning. It said that, however, if the government was aware, why were so many students allowed to continue taking such distance education courses.
The actual SMU College campus in Sikkim offers courses only in Engineering, Medicine, MBA and Masters in Computer Application. The SMU has been allowed to only do online courses outside Sikkim for the year of 2016-17 by the UGC for a limited number of courses with no study center affiliation. This too would be subject to further review by UGC.
B.B Pradhan College
Meanwhile, attesting to the duplicitous nature of these study centers, Sonam Tenzin, a former 2010 graduate student of B.B Pradhan Management College and the then Bhutan Students Association treasurer said that none of them were aware that their SMU affiliation was only for distance learning. He said that the Kalimpong college also never informed them on the issue. Sonam said that during his time itself around 400 Bhutanese students were graduating in a year from the college and by now it would be around 5,000 to 6,000 graduates.
He also confirmed that several of his colleagues got jobs in the civil service, government agencies, banks and even the election commission on the basis of those graduation certificates which at the time did not mention distance learning.
However, even before the eight student’s complaint the Ministry of Education got alerted on the issue in 2016 when a candidate for the Haa Thrompon’s post had to step down after the Bhutan Accreditation Council found her B.B Pradhan degree was a distance learning one.
The Department of Adult and Higher Education (DAHE) Director, Kesang C. Dorji said that in 2016 her department issued a notification on SMU saying that certain centers including B.B Pradhan was a distance learning one.
The Director said that the B.B Pradhan College management people even charged her in her office for the notification.
The director said that students going for such courses don’t even find out and ask as the DAHE would be more than happy to inform them and also find out the validity of these courses and Universities. She said instead what seems to be happening is that if a student comes for vacation he takes a dozen of his friends with him to the same college.
The Director said that they would once again remind and alert students.
The RCSC’s examination division head Jigme Norbu said that both the 2010 BCSR and the 2012 BCSR does not allow for ‘distance education’ certificates to be accepted. He said that such a rule existed even prior to the 2010 BCSR. Jigme said that before the RCSC exams they verify the documents but as detailed as the verification is they cannot find out if the certificates do not mention ‘distance learning.’
He said that though many B.B Pradhan Management College students sat for RCSC in the past only a few could get through due to quality issues. Jigme said that, however, all RCSC applicants had to sign a legal undertaking saying that their degree is a fully legitimate one.
RCSC Chairman Dasho Karma Tshiteem said that RCSC does not accept ‘distance learning’ certificates due to quality issues as students do not have a point of contact. He said he was not aware of the latest issue and that RCSC would have to review it in line with the laws.
The RCSC this year disqualified a PGDE candidate even after the candidate got through once it was found that the graduation certificate was a ‘distance learning’ one.
The Cabinet secretary Kinzang Wangdi said that he has received the student’s letter and he has written to the Royal University of Bhutan Vice Chancellor to write to the SMU Vice Chancellor and find out what can be done.
The Education Ministry has asked the DAHE to also look into the issue. In the meantime thousands of SMU graduates will have to cross their fingers and wait for a solution, if at all.